Hashtag Heritage

Hashtag Heritage | Kathryn Eccles

This KE Fellowship enabled Kathryn to combine her interests in digital engagement with cultural heritage, with new methods in social data science. The Fellowship provided the opportunity to pilot the use of social media data and image classification algorithms to better understand visitor engagement with heritage sites, focusing on English Heritage’s portfolio of free-to-access sites.

English Heritage look after 255 free heritage sites, which make up over half of the organisation’s portfolio. These sites range from the remains of a second century AD Roman fort, Bronze Age tombs on Cornish cliff tops, Neolithic long barrows dating back to c.3800 BC, and the ruins of numerous abbeys, villages, castles and priories. They represent a broad sweep of human history, from Prehistory to the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

With no staffed gates or paid entry points at which to gather straightforward data on visitor numbers, the free sites have presented a challenge to the organisation in terms of understanding more about what draws people to the sites, what they enjoy about their visits, whether they want or need more information, and how to maximise this engagement to raise awareness about English Heritage’s work.

The project looked at image and textual data from Twitter and Instagram to try to understand how visitors’ use of social media contributes to our understanding of how visitors connect to free sites. Following on from scholarship on how new technologies facilitate collaborative engagement with heritage and social ‘place-making’, the research project explored what social data can tell us about visitor engagement with history, heritage and place.

Data from Twitter unearthed a number of key community groups and activities focused on particular free sites, while data from Instagram revealed varied patterns of visitor engagement throughout the year, as well as unearthing playful engagement with features of individual sites, such as sculptures and statues. Combining research questions arising from the research team and the organisation provided a fascinating insight into how new data-driven methodologies could be operationalised within the heritage sector.

This Fellowship project has benefited from working with the Oxford University Heritage Network and the new TORCH Network (En)coding Heritage. It has also led on to further work on ‘playful’ engagement with cultural heritage thanks to an Oxford GLAM Labs-funded project called ‘Mapping Playful Spaces in the Museum’, which focused specifically on tracing different types of playful engagement seen in the #Heritage project.

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